There are growing fears that escalating tensions in recent weeks between Sudan and Ethiopia are the latest twist in a decades-old history of rivalry between the two countries, is a disputed area known as al-Fashaga, where the north-west of Ethiopia’s Amhara region meets Sudan’s breadbasket Gedaref state.Sudan and Ethiopia needs to resolve their differences through dialogue.
Diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and the Sudan always have linked to mutual suspicion and readiness to disrepute the other. Intermittent cases of association often antecedent arduous periods of engagement; the longer the hiatus the more intricate the subsequent encounter. Borders in the Horn of Africa are fiercely disputed. Relations improved during the twentieth century.
Efforts to properly demarcate the border date back to a treaty signed in 1902 between then British-ruled Sudan and Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie, who had been in exile during the 1936–41 Italian occupation of Ethiopia, brought back with the help of Ethiopian, British, and Sudanese forces from Sudan. Relations became tense again in the late 1950s as Ethiopia supported the South Sudanese Anya Nya rebels in their battle against Khartoum. Selassie, however, helped broker the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement that ended the first civil war between North and South. But the ambiguity along certain border points left the issue unresolved and demarcation has remained a sticking point between the two countries, particularly since Sudan gained independence in 1955.
In 1972, Ethiopia and now independent Sudan sought to settle their boundary more conclusively, with some adjustments to the location of the border. Ethiopia’s military government under Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974–91) strongly supported the SPLM/A against the government in Khartoum. In the 1980s, Communist Ethiopia armed Sudanese rebels while Sudan aided ethno-nationalist armed groups, including the TPLF. In the 1990s, Sudan supported militant groups while Ethiopia backed the Sudanese opposition.
Sudan’s relations with Ethiopia reached a low in 1995 following Sudanese complicity in the attempted assassination of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as he was visiting Addis Ababa. The assassination incident and its aftermath was used by both Egypt and Ethiopia to seize lands in Sudan in 1995 (Halaib triangle on the border with Egypt and al-Fashaga on the border with Ethiopia respectively).
Sudan has a long territorial dispute with Ethiopia along the 750 km-long shared border which most of these boundaries are not clearly marked on the ground. A 2008 compromise had allowed for a “soft border” in the al-Fashaga region, Ethiopia acknowledged the legal boundary but Sudan permitted the Ethiopians to continue living there undisturbed and letting Ethiopian farming communities remain in place without surrendering Sudan’s claim to the territory.
The border tensions come at a time when Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are also trying to resolve a three-way dispute over the controversial dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Ethiopia sees the dam as key to plans to become Africa’s largest power exporter. Egypt, which gets more than 90% of its scarce fresh water from the Nile, fears the dam across the Blue Nile could devastate its economy.
For decades, Egypt has threatened to go to war with Ethiopia over use of Nile waters. In September 2019, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told the U.N. General Assembly, “The Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt.” In other words, the “Nile question” is a matter of life and death for Egypt. On May 12, 2020, Ethiopia reiterated its long declared policy that it will start filling the GERD in July, 2020.In response, on May 19, 2020, El-Sisi directed Egyptian armed forces to be on the “highest state of alert”.
Interrelation between Sudan and Ethiopia reached their warmest when Mr Abiy flew to Khartoum in June 2019 to encourage pro-democracy protesters and the Sudanese generals to come to agreement with a civilian government following the overthrow of long-term ruler Omar al-Bashir.It was a characteristic Abiy initiative – high profile and wholly individual – and it needed formalization through the regional body Igad and the diplomatic heavy lifting of others, including the African Union, Arab countries, the US and UK to achieve results.
Sudan Prime Minister Hamdok has tried to return the favour by offering assistance in resolving Ethiopia’s conflict in Tigray. He was rebuffed, at the 20 December 2020 summit, at which Mr Abiy insisted that the Ethiopian government would deal with its internal affairs on its own.
Currently, refugees from Tigray continue to flood into Sudan, bringing with them stories of atrocities and hunger, the Ethiopian prime minister may find it more difficult to reject mediation.Ethiopia is also still reeling from an ongoing armed conflict in the northern Tigray region near the Sudanese border, possibly triggering fears on the Sudanese side that the Ethiopians may try and take some of the disputed territory amid the chaos.Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has long accused the TPLF old guard of seeking to sabotage his government and his purported reforms. But now, facing all-out war against a formidable foe, the outcome will turn on the choices of Ethiopia’s neighbors -Sudan and Eritrea. The Ethiopia delegation’s head of the 2008 border talks, Abay Tsehaye, was a senior official of the TPLF, which ethnic Amhara leaders have since labeled a secret deal.
Initially, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s friendly relationship with his Sudanese counterpart was cause for optimism. The work of a technical committee for demarcating the borders between the two countries was suspended in 2013. Each side has its own story of what sparked the clash in Fashaga Triangle. What happened next is not in dispute: the Sudanese army drove back the Ethiopians and forced the villagers to evacuate. In January, Sudan closed its airspace over the region alleging that an Ethiopian fighter jet had infiltrated Sudanese airspace.
Despite the fact that Ethiopia and Sudan have different perspectives on the trigger for recent flare-ups in the area, what is clear is that both have amassed military forces along the border, creating the conditions for dangerous miscalculations. The task of demarcating the disputed border has not been successful despite long efforts by both sides.